Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What about the Children?

Alfie, NHLers pay surprise visits to kids' practices

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NEW YORK -- Daniel Alfredsson isn't merely counting the days of the NHL lockout, he knows his time as a professional hockey player is limited, too.

The longtime captain of the Ottawa Senators isn't lacking for things to do, though, while he waits for the NHL and the players' association to work out their differences and get the already-delayed season underway.

With four kids at home, and being heavily involved with their on-ice development, the 16-year NHL veteran is busy. He keeps one eye on the labour negotiations and another on everyday things. That includes providing quite a surprise for some unsuspecting youngsters who hit the ice for a night practice last week.

As part of a project by the NHLPA, players across North America are showing up unannounced at hockey practices to say hi, providing young players with a tip or two, and hanging around after spirited spins on the ice.

Last week was Alfredsson's turn at the West Carleton Minor Hockey Association in Carp, Ont., where more than a dozen 16-year-olds on the Midget B team were honing their skills.

"It was a lot of fun," Alfredsson told The Associated Press. "The surprise of the kids -- they were just going to start scrimmaging when I stepped on the ice. And they said, 'What are you doing here?' They were so shocked."

So far, at least 75 players have visited 55 minor hockey teams since the lockout began in September. Nearly 1,000 children and teens have had an NHLPA member join their team for a practice, and the players have combined to spend more than 100 hours at rinks in the past few weeks. A nice bit of public relations built into an effort to give back to the game.

"I stayed on half an hour after to sign some autographs and talk to them a bit," Alfredsson said. "I still got the feeling that they were thinking, 'Did this really happen?' For me it was a lot of fun to give them a special day at a late-night practice that started at 9:30."

Alfredsson should have been in an NHL arena in front of about 17,000 people, but that isn't possible these days -- not with the league and union embroiled in another labour dispute that has produced the league's third lockout since 1994.

At least some fans can benefit from the unexpected resource of available hockey players while they wait for the NHL to return.

"Someone needs to gain by this work stoppage, and why not youth hockey?" said Tom Renney, a former head coach who is now an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings. "I think players participating in youth practices as guest instructors or participants is wonderful. Also, I know of a healthy number of NHL coaches doing the same thing.

"Honest to goodness good intentions."

Alfredsson lost a full season back in 2004-05 when the NHL's last fight over a collective bargaining agreement led to the only cancelled season in major North American professional sports. If a deal isn't struck before this season gets wiped out, the soon-to-be 40-year-old right winger might be staring at the end of his career.

Because of family responsibilities, Alfredsson has so far resisted heading elsewhere to play hockey while playing the waiting game. If the sides don't agree to a deal to save the season, the native of Sweden might then check out other playing options.

"I have stayed involved in the negotiations in terms of staying updated all the time, but at the same time I'm not going every day and kicking myself, 'Have I played my last game' or 'what ifs"' Alfredsson said. "I am not feeling sorry for myself or anything.

"I'm just trying to make the most of my time, spending it with the family and helping my wife out. Physically I feel better than I have in years. I have skated a few times, and I feel like I'm in real good shape. I wish there were games now."

In the event Alfredsson seeks a new place to play, he isn't sure where he might land. It will likely be in Europe, but not necessarily back home in Sweden. Again, his family will be a major factor in any decision.

"I am helping out my oldest son. I'm on the ice with them every time they practice," he said. "I'm kind of enjoying that role. If this goes the whole season then I have to make a decision what I want to do going forward -- if I want to retire or if I maybe want to give it another shot. Then I will maybe go look to play somewhere for a few months to not be too rusty.

"I don't know if I would go to one of the highest leagues or if I'll go just to a place where it would be an experience for me and my family."

The youngsters who practiced with Alfredsson didn't pepper him with questions about contracts, or dollars or any of the issues that currently have the NHL on ice instead of on the ice.

"They were more interested in just their own game," he said. "It was mostly hockey talk."

While it seems on the outside that it should be easier for the NHL and the players' association to reach a new deal now than it was back in 2004, because there is no philosophical divide this time whether there should or shouldn't be a salary cap, that doesn't mean there is an obvious common ground.

"It's disappointing more than anything," Alfredsson said. "This time around it is so important to find a deal that doesn't just do a quick fix, but it's something that builds a foundation going forward that we don't have this occurring every time the CBA is up."


-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 21, 2012 B6

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